Neil Young performing at the Nelson Mandela Forum, Florence, Italy, June 2008. Photo: Andrea Barsanti via WikiCommons.
When word came all the way back in 2004 that Bob Dylan would begin writing his memoirs in a three-part series called "Chronicles," there was suddenly a very real possibility that, finally, after more than forty years, we would be given the opportunity to know Bob Dylan in a way we'd never quite been able to. The record, we thought, would finally be set straight -- decades spent dizzyingly contradicting himself and proudly, seemingly for sport, messing with anyone who dared to sit down in front of him with press credentials and a microphone would be rendered moot once it was just him and a typewriter or a MacBook Pro or whatever.
Things didn't quite turn out that way. "Chronicles" was eye-opening on some levels, sure, but you never really got the sense he was being as forthcoming as you'd hoped, and in a lot of ways, it just added to the frustrating elusiveness that had defined Dylan since he first came onto the scene so long ago.
Neil Young's new autobiography, "Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream," offers that same kind of promise -- that we may come to a deeper understanding of one of our greatest living artists -- and, refreshingly, it makes good on every ounce of it and then some.
If you've paid even the slightest bit of attention to Neil Young over the years, you know he's a different sort of rock star. His persona is based not on old-fashioned recklessness or some sinister sense of mystery or anything like that, but on his steadfast insistence on doing whatever he pleases, for whatever reason he deems sufficient at the time, regardless of how much sense it does or does not make. Examples of this pop up all over "Waging Heavy Peace." Case in point: The reason he decided to write it in the first place is that he suffered a broken pinky toe when he stubbed it on a rock in the summer of 2011. "This book," he writes, "is one of the things I'm doing to stay off the stage." This is an objectively strange thing to say. Broken pinky toes heal pretty quickly, I would think, and besides, the last time I saw him, he sat down for probably 70 percent of the show. It's maybe worth noting that the other contributing factor he sites for writing the book is that he stopped smoking weed and drinking for the first time since he was eighteen and is thus more able to focus.
It's also worth noting, though, that focus is not exactly the book's strong suit. In fact, its utter lack of focus is a big part of what makes it so incredibly charming. He's a natural-born storyteller who lacks any semblance of self-awareness or even a fleeting interest in irony. Events in the book are not arranged chronologically, and even within chapters (hell, from one paragraph to the next, really) he indulges in an astonishing number of little asides. Some of them are touching, some of them are hilarious; all of them are welcome diversions from the norm.
Flip to one page and he's talking about how he recently bought a new pair of leather boots when he realized the type he'd been wearing for years were not quite the right ones for him. "These new leather boots kick ass," he says. "Now I have really good boots and can walk a long way again! Fantastic. Maybe I should call this book The Shoe Chronicles." You go kind of wide-eyed and shake your head at the sheer randomness of it all, but then he assures you there's a point: walking, it turns out, is really important to Neil Young. It soothes his soul, he says.
Elsewhere, he's roaming the aisles of a Hawaiian Costco (he needed replacement brushes for his Sonicare toothbrush; also, "the food department was awesome"). Or he's going on at length about how much he loves paddleboarding or old cars or toy trains. The point is, everything Neil Young does, he does very seriously and under great consideration. To be as candid and earnest as he is throughout the book, it really is a beautiful and inspiring thing to behold.
But it's not just the minutiae where he finds meaning. There's a huge amount of words spilled on his wife, Pegi, and the rest of his family, especially his son Ben, a nonverbal quadriplegic who requires a tremendous amount of special care. His life with them is sacred, and obviously full of love. He talks a lot about the countless little traditions that are so important to him -- after reading his account of forty years in his shoes, you get the feeling there's nothing quite as important as routine.
And about that forty years: There is, of course, no shortage of information about his music career. He spends a surprising amount of time discussing The Squires, the early-60s Winnipeg-based band with whom he first performed the electric versions of "Oh Susannah" and "Clementine" he revisited on his most recent album, Americana. He places huge emphasis on the sadly short lived Buffalo Springfield, whose untimely end was signaled when bassist Bruce Palmer was forced to leave the band after being deported on drug charges. The portions dedicated to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young are full of invaluable insight as well -- there aren't a whole lot of people left who can talk about their experiences at both Woodstock and Altamont, after all. It's Crazy Horse, though, that functions as his creative center, the thing he continues to go back to for reasons even he can't fully explain.
Neil Young is, in a number of somewhat conflicting ways, obsessed with the idea of change. It's fascinating to read his explanations of the myriad stylistic shifts he's implemented over the years, and it's by no means an understatement to say that the need for change seems to be what keeps him going. And that goes for his non-music pursuits as well: he calls for it through his political activism and environmental work, and his most recent project, an attempt to combat the public's newly low standards when it comes to how their music sounds, is a lossless (or, somehow supposedly better than lossless) audio format called PureTone. This is where, for him, change doesn't sit quite as well. He's quick to point out problems with how the music industry has changed over the years, specifically due to the shortcomings and empty promises of technology. In that way, he can seem like a pretty ordinary 66-year-old man.
There's a part late in the book, though -- chapter 66, actually -- where, if his unfathomably illustrious past weren't enough, he makes it pretty clear that he's anything but ordinary. "A lot has happened over the years," he writes, "I am now a very successful musician with a lot of stuff and things of value." But even still, he's trying to figure out how to be better. "How do I avoid being short with those I love and respect? How do I try to make people feel good about what they are doing for and with me? How can I respect others' tastes while retaining my own?" The answers to these questions are still to come, it seems: on the acknowledgements page, he says very matter-of-factly, "I would like to thank all the people in this book and my next book." I'm looking forward to it.